It’s not about the tyres

I’m a MotoGP novice, on a very steep learning curve. As I watched Sunday’s races in America’s so-called “Rust Belt, at the Brickyard,
Indianapolis, home of Indy 500 and NASCAR 400, the main issue seemed to be tyre management. No, it’s not about choice because, since 2009, all MotoGP riders use made-in-Japan, Bridgestone tyres, while Moto2 and 125cc use British Dunlops. But let’s stick with the blue riband event, since the principles are the same. Given the high temperature on the dry new track surface last Sunday, the riders only [slick] options were:

  • Front: Soft, Medium, Hard.
  • Rear (asymmetric): Hard, Extra Hard

Every rider, bar Ducati’s Nicky Hayden, opted for the softer option rear and the harder option front tyres for the 28-lap race. Hayden’s gamble didn’t pay off. While it’s the combination of rider and bike which determines tyre performance, there were clear differences in tyre durability and consistency between riders using exactly the same tyre specifications.

Allocation of the range of available Bridgestone tyres to each of the MotoGP riders is random and takes place the day before the start of
practice (Thursday in the vast majority of cases) and cannot be changed after 5pm. Restricting tyre choice to one supplier has reduced off-season testing (and related costs) as teams don’t need to experiment with the tyre allowing them to fully concentrate on [experimenting with] the bike.

A typical MotoGP race tyre comprises rubber, high tech plastic fibres, resins and minerals, combined to produce the highest level of performance. The choice of exactly which of the allocated range to use on race day is undertaken by the teams following consultation of the data they, and the tyre supplier, have collected at the track plus discussions with the riders, based on their knowledge of the circuit and expected weather conditions. The feel of the bike on test days, free practice, qualifying and the pre-race warm-up sessions also affects which tyres are selected.

On test days, and during practice sessions, riders often undertake `race simulations,´ where they ride with the sort of tyre they would
expect to use on race day. These exercises are crucial for their team, and the manufacturers, in terms of the data they yield and the feedback they produce. Based on all the available data, on race days, a critical balance has to be achieved between tyre grip and endurance. A soft ‘gripping’
tyre will permit quicker speeds and faster lap times, but will wear out more quickly. A harder, less ‘sticky’ tyre will last longer, but won’t help the rider as much to attain top speeds.

Race tyres are designed to perform optimally for a race distance of around 120km and are normally slicks: far more adhesive, but far
less durable. Race tyres can vary tremendously and, as previously noted, are chosen according to the expected temperature, the type of asphalt, the demands of the bike and the riding style of riders. To complicate matters still further, the requirements for front and rear tyres can vary massively from a technical perspective. Getting the choice right at both ends is critical to success on the track.

Races are categorised as either wet or dry before the start. However, if necessary, their status can be changed during the race. Once a race has been declared wet from the start, riders can come into the pits to change bikes, just so long as they also change the type of tyres. Once used, the tyres are all returned to Bridgestone for analysis and to aid further developments.

However, nothing and no one, prevented Aussie, Casey Stoner, from winning his 7th race of the season, his 3rd consecutive victory, and extending his championship lead to 44 points, with 6 races remaining. Completing the podium was Honda Repsol team mate, Dani Pedrosa in second, and Yamaha Racing’s Ben Spies who, having sunk to ninth place in the first lap, recovered magnificently to climb onto the podium for the third time this season. Same tyre choices, two different chassis and three different riders.

Here’s an explanation of some of the terms used when talking about tyres, courtesy of Bridgestone:-

Asymmetric tyres: These are only available as rear tyres. Asymmetric slicks comprise a harder compound in one shoulder and a
softer compound in the other designed for circuits which create higher tyre temperatures in one shoulder than the other, usually because of an imbalance of right and left-handed corners.

Bead: Serves as an anchor to hold the tyre securely to the wheel rim.

Belts: Belts are one of the core components of tyres. They may be steel, nylon, polyester or other such materials, and form a literal belt around the tyre to strengthen the tread area and to make the tyre puncture resistant.

Camber angle

Camber angle: Measured in degrees, camber is the inward or outward tilt of the wheel at its uppermost point when compared with the true vertical line at the centreline of the wheel. In MotoGP, camber angle has the same meaning as lean angle. Generally, the greater the lean angle, the higher the lateral force and so the greater the demand on the tyres.

Carbon black: A molecular structure found in all racing tyres, carbon black is a black powder substance produced by burning oils in a furnace. It provides strength and also produces the familiar black colour of tyres. There are hundreds of kinds of carbon black and each will produce a
compound with certain properties: improved traction, hardness, wear and so on.

Compound: Formed by a mixture of various elements used by tyre manufacturers to produce the surface layer of a race tyre, the compound’s properties vary with the exact blend of ingredients. It is the compound that is in contact with the track and therefore one of the major
factors in deciding tyre performance, being a trade-off between outright grip and durability.

Construction: The way in which the component parts (belt, cords, tread, sidewall) of a tyre are constructed determines its ability to absorb shocks, transmit traction and braking forces and to provide strength to contain inflation pressure. The nature of a tyre is dependent upon the way
in which the component parts are laid and assembled.

High-side: This where the rear tyre loses grip, either because of slippery conditions, insufficient temperature, too much throttle applied by the rider or a number of other reasons, and slides sideways . The rear then grips and tries to snap back into line with the front wheel, and the force often throws the rider off the bike.

Low-side: In a low-side crash, the front tyre will most commonly lose grip mid-corner, either because of excess corner speed, insufficient temperature and too great a lean angle or a number of other reasons, and the bike will slide out from beneath the rider.

Polymers: One of the core components of rubber, from one of two main groups: natural or synthetic.

Sidewall: The sidewall is the most important element in transferring engine power to the tyres as it connects the wheel rim to the tyre tread, and therefore the track surface.

Tyre warmer: A warming device designed to maintain a uniform temperature throughout the tyre.

Hung out to dry

Part I of my marathon viewing session over, I replenished the refreshments before settling back to watch Part II, the Spanish Moto GP from Jerez which must be in a plain as it was raining. The damp, slippery track was to provide plenty of spills and thrills, and a wee bit of controversy, in front of the King of Spain, just one of  123,000 spectators jammed into the track.

In 125cc, Nico Terol continued his dominating run of form. He leapt from 2nd position on the grid into 1st, and stayed there. He spent much of the race jousting with his Aspar team mate, Hector Faubel, the 2007 series runner-up, who slid out of contention on the last lap, finally limping home in 11th position. The podium was rounded out by Jonas Folger in 2nd and Frenchman Johan Zarco, who claimed his first-ever podium place, in 3rd.

In Moto2, Andrea Iannone moved up from his 11th place on the grid to assume control of the race mid-way, take his first victory of the season and lead the championship. Swiss, Thomas Luthi, a former 125cc champion, was 2nd and Simone Corsi, who was in 18th place on the grid finished 3rd, providing the only Spaniard free podium of the championship. Rookie Marc Marquez’s bad luck continued when he was tail-gated in the 6th lap by Frenchman, Jules Cluzel. They were both out of the race. Poleman, Stefan Bradl, finished 4th on the track where, a few years ago, his father Helmut enjoyed his first senior win.

Onto  MotoGP, where Julian and Toby helpfully explained that  key to winning today were tyre management and engine settings. They felt the Ducati, with its good rear traction, would start well but that Yamaha would deal best with the wet conditions. They were not wrong.

Stoner, starting on pole, maintained his lead until he was taken out by Rossi who had screamed up the course (on his Ducati) from 12th into 2nd. As the two struggled to right their bikes and resume the race, the track officials, to a man, ran to assist Rossi, totally ignoring Stoner. Rossi re-started coming in to finish 5th. Stoner, not a happy bunny, was out of the race.

Of course, it’s interesting to wonder why Stoner, the championship leader, was patently ignored in preference to Rossi. A couple of years back, I met someone who worked as a hostess at MotoGP races. Her favourite racer, by a mile was Valentino Rossi. I asked her why?  She said that he treated everyone the same, whatever their status, he was kind, charming, thoughtful and remembered everyone’s names. Sounds like a nice bloke.

With Stoner out, Marco Simoncelli assumed the lead,  2010 champion Jorge Lorenzo, on a Yamaha, was 2nd,  Rossi’s team mate, Nicky Hayden, was 3rd, Ben Spies was 4th and Dani Pedrosa, riding very conservatively, had slipped back into 5th. The curse of the commentator struck, Simoncelli went down due to “rider over-enthusiasm”. You need a cool, calm demeanour in these conditions.

Pedrosa recovered and by half-way was back into 2nd, behind Lorenzo, with the Americans, Hayden and Spies, battling for 3rd place. Spiess made it into 2nd, before sliding off the track. Pedrosa back into 2nd. Colin Edwardes moved into 3rd before he too was out of contention. Meanwhile, Rossi was battling back from 18th.  It finished Lorenzo, Pedrosa, Hayden. I love it when they do wheelies over the line. That’s another skill I can’t perform on my bike, not that I’ve ever tried, even unintentionally.

Run, run, runaway

After yesterday’s early start and busy morning, it was with some relief I sat down to watch the Moto GP season opener from Qatar. I hadn’t had either the time, or frankly the inclination, to watch the practice sessions, so had no idea who was where on the grids.

For me, one of the many charms of MotoGP is Eurosport’s commentary team of Toby Moody and Julian English. Catherine Riley of The Times  said ” …they could make a lap of a supermarket exciting and if there’s a better motorsport commentary team anywhere, I’ll eat my armchair”. No need to go that far Catherine. I would echo her opinion and say that there isn’t a better English language sports commentary team. If only the commentators who covered cycling were as knowledgable, witty and amusing.

Toby Moody and Julian English in pole position
Toby (bald) and Julian (beard)

As the picture shows, neither are spring chickens but, first and foremost, as long time  journalists, they bring to their commentary a rare depth of knowledge and a real love of the sport combined with a rare ability to pronounce correctly riders’ names.

Given I know so little about this sport, I decided to acquire a veneer of knowledge. I am indebted to www.motogp.com for their articulate explanations.

MotoGP is the motorcycling equivalent  of F1. An 18-race series visiting fourteen countries, four continents, with global television viewing figures totalling 337 million in over 200 countries. In 2010, over 2.2 million made the pilgrimage to watch the world’s best and most skilled riders line a grid astride cutting-edge motorcycle technology with prototype machinery from just four manufacturers: Ducati, Yamaha, Honda and Suzuki.

Established as a World Championship by the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) in 1949. MotoGP is the oldest motorsport championship and the blue riband of three racing classes that take place on a Grand Prix weekend.

Each GP event takes place over three consecutive days. The first two  comprise practice and qualification for each class; the third is race-day. There are free practice sessions on Friday and Saturday, and a single qualification practice on Saturday afternoon which determines grid order for Sunday’s race. In each category, the three fastest riders take positions on the first row of the grid, with the rest lining up in threes behind.

After warm-up sessions for each category on race-day, the 125cc race kicks off the programme, followed by the Moto2 class and then, last but not least,  the jewel in the crown, MotoGP.  Races vary in length between 95-130km and normally last between 40-45 minutes.

So what’s the difference between the various categories?

  • 125cc – Is the first step on the World Championship ladder for young competitors. Maximum engine size is 125cc (single-cylinder units). The maximum age for riders is 28 years (25 for wild-card riders or those newly contracted and competing in a 125cc GP for the first time) and the minimum age is 16 years.
  • Moto2 – This 4-stroke, 600cc class was introduced in 2010 to replace the 250cc category.  Moto2 aims to be a prestigious yet cost-effective adjunct to the premier league, MotoGP. Honda is the sole engine supplier, Dunlop provide the tyres while the prototype chassis are provided by a number of engineering firms such as Suter (Swiss), Kalex (German) and Moriwaki (Japanese).  The minimum age for riders is 16.
  • MotoGP – This provides the ultimate test on two wheels for its finest talents. The maximum engine capacity is 800cc (4-stroke engines) and the machines are all prototypes.  The minimum age for riders is 18.
125cc winner Nico Terol

So, on to Moto2 where German, Stefan Bradl (1989) surged away from his first pole position to record his 2nd ever win. Andrea Iannone leapfrogged from 16th on the grid into 2nd place after battling with Yuki Takahashi. Tom Luthi came through in the final laps to take 3rd. Last year’s 125cc champion and Moto2 rookie,  Marc Marquez, crashed out on lap 4: a  touch too much of youthful exuberance.

Riding his first season for Honda, whose bikes were quickest in pre-season testing and practice, former MotoGP champion, Aussi Casey Stoner (1985) won at Qatar for the 4th time in 5 years. His team mate Dani Pedrosa surged past him on pole and led for half a lap before being overtaken by last season’s champion, Jorge Lorenzo.  But by the end of lap 2, Stoner was back in the lead with Lorenzo in 2nd place.

Honda boys

Pedrosa

Sunday treat

We’ve been house bound by hurricane like winds and lashings of rain since yesterday afternoon. I woke early, thanks to the clocks going back an hour, and decided to give my beloved a treat. No, not that sort of treat! I nipped out for fresh bread, croissants (for him, not me) and the Sunday newspapers. It’s rare we have an opportunity to laze over breakfast and enjoy the newspapers on a Sunday morning.

I gave in to temptation after lunch and curled up on the sofa in my obligatory Sunday afternoon apparel (pyjamas), did the Sudoku in the Sunday Times and watched the  Moto GP from Estoril. The grid (1. Lorenzo, 2. Hayden and 3.Rossi) was based on practice times, courtesy of  yesterday’s qualification washout. Although it was dry today, it was very windy.

The early rounds focused on the tussle for first place between Rossi and his team mate Lorenzo. The former enjoyed the upper hand in the first half of the race but, after being overhauled and distanced, he finished 2nd, some 8 seconds down. Lorenzo recorded his 8th Moto GP win of the season.

In the second half of the race, attention turned to the three-way fight for 3rd between Hayden, Simoncelli and Dovizioso. As the line approached, Dovizioso  just pipped Simoncelli for the last place on the podium. Next up, next week end, is the final race of the season from Valencia where Rossi (now up to 3rd after Stoner’s DNF) may just nudge Pedrosa out of 2nd place in the championship. 

I will not bother elaborating on the bore draw between my beloved boys in claret and blue and their blue-nosed rivals nor OGCN’s 2-0 loss away at Auxerre. Both teams will require reinforcements in the January transfer window.

Undeterred

It rained heavily overnight but, by the time we awoke on Sunday morning, the roads were starting to dry out. The sky looked menacing although rain wasn’t forecast until the afternoon. The club had a reasonable turnout  and, as we set off from our usual rdv point, I rode at the front, but still got dropped on the rise out of the Port of Nice.

The boys were riding at a goodly pace, presumably in the hope of outrunning the rain. It wasn’t looking good. I had lost sight of even the back markers before reaching Beaulieu su Mer. I usually manage to keep them in view until Cap d’Ail. I consoled myself by overtaking a bunch of riders from a neighbouring club. Clearly my form had declined, but not by that much. I got a second wind after Monaco and positively sprinted up Mont des Mules, overhauling more riders.

When I first started riding, I couldn’t overtake anyone. Slowly, I progressed. First, it was grannies on sit-up-and-beg bikes, motorised wheelchairs and the odd tourist on a mountain bike before I moved in on the octogenarians. Of course, I overtake far more on the flat, and particularly on the descents, than I ever do on ascents. So any scalp, when propelling myself heavenwards, is cherished.

The boys had only just departed when I arrived at the concentration. It looked as if the weather had ensured a limited turn out for both the pointage and the race. Having congratulated one of our members who’d won his age-group race that morning, I went to leave and the heavens opened. I decided to take the least line of resistance and head back home the way I had come.  

Everyone else must have elected to return via the Moyenne or Grande Corniches as I didn’t see another clubmate until I reached Nice. We rode along the Promenade des Anglais together until one by one they all turned off leaving me to ride into the headwind on my own. I caught up with my beloved at our usual watering hole, he’d been trying to warm himself up with a hot chocolate.

We rode home, stripped off our sodden kit and headed for the showers. After lunch, I donned my new Qatar Airways jimjams and curled up on the sofa with the Sunday newspapers  to watch the Moto GP from Phillip Island, Australia.

I’m not a motor racing fan though I could easily identify all the Formula 1 GP drivers and match them to their cars. However, I have become a fan of Moto GP. I initially starting watching it because it’s often on the television before the cycling. Now, I make a point of catching the races and, occasionally, even the qualifying. Mounted cameras on the bikes give you a taste of the action and make you really appreciate their fearless bike handling skills.

Like cyclists, they tend to be on the petite side and are similarly tough guys who readily hop back onto a bike after a spill at speeds of over 150km/hr or with their broken bones barely pinned back together. However, they earn a way lot more than cyclists. I seem to recall that Valentino Rossi ended up paying Euros 39 million in back taxes to the Italian authorities. No cyclists (Lance excepted) will earn even Euros 39 million anytime soon.

Hayden and the Doctor (Rossi, no 46)

This season’s Championship has already been won by Rossi’s Yamaha team mate, the Spaniard, Jorge Lorenzo. Yesterday, Casey Stoner won at a canter for the fourth consecutive time on home soil. If I recall correctly, he won the championship in 2007 and, despite the facial hair, still looks about 15 (he was 25 on Saturday). Yesterday, the real race interest centered around the tussle for third spot between Nicky Hayden (Champion in 2006) and 7-times  champion Valentino Rossi. The two will be team mates next year at Ducati. In case you’re interested, the Doctor prevailed and is lying 4th overall in the Championship, gunning for 3rd spot.